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Holiday spent exploring the Holy Lands

UTSC professor Donna Young (right) and U of T masters student Bushra Patel are in Jerusalem doing research over the holidays.

UTSC professor Donna Young swapped the bustle of Christmas with her family this past holiday season for a trip to Jerusalem where she stayed and did research on a Roman Catholic order of nuns.

“It was a fabulous and very productive trip,” says Young, who did research on the Sisters of Sion while staying at the Ecce Homo convent in east Jerusalem.

Her current research involves examining the role the Sisters play in relationship building among the various religious groups in the region, specifically the historical contribution the Sisters have made in reconciling Roman Catholicism and Judaism.  She also did research on the modern history of the order by gathering oral histories of the sisters living in the convent.

Her visit also provided the opportunity to interview and write the personal history of a 92-year-old holocaust survivor who joined the Sisters of Sion after converting to Catholicism following the war.

“It’s a special opportunity because her life bridges some of the most profound events of the 20th century, including the Shoah (Holocaust), the creation of the state of Israel and the Palestinian crisis,” says Young.

This was the fifth time Young has visited Jerusalem and her second time staying at the convent. The convent is built over a sacred site held by Christian tradition to be the place where Jesus was condemned to death. The stone walkway in the basement even dates back to Roman Times.

In addition to leading pilgrimages to religious sites in the area, the Sisters of Sion hold regular Bible study courses and play a key role in establishing common ground among the various religious groups throughout the region.  

Young is really looking forward to celebrating Christmas mass at the Church the Holy Sepulchre, which is one of most important religious sites for Christians because it’s believed to be the site of Jesus’ resurrection.

She was joined by her former student Bushra Patel, who assisted Young in her research. Patel is a masters student in cultural anthropology at U of T, and is looking at the interaction between tourists and local residents in the area.

“The Holy Lands are flooded with all kinds of scholars, pilgrims, activists, tourists and residents, so I wanted to meet as many people as I could,” says Patel. 

Patel hopes the interviews will provide guidance and help sharpen the focus of her research. Patel’s area of interest includes mobility issues within socially-complicated landscapes, so she hopes to come away with clear focus after hearing many different perspectives.

The trip also offered a chance for her to experience Christmas for the first time.

“Having grown up in Canada the images I have of Christmas are stereotypical, so this experience was very different from what I know,” she says.

© University of Toronto Scarborough